As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning: A Memoir

This is the second book in a three part memoir. There is a link to my notes on the first book, “Cider with Rosie” at the bottom of this post. That book dealt with growing up in a small village in England. The area is the Cotswolds and has ceased to be a poor, rural area and become one where the rich have established country homes due to its beauty. Tourism is also a major industry.

Regarding this book I was delighted to see the author went to Spain, a country very close to my heart. However, it is a Spain of the past, pre civil war and very poor. Although Spain has improved economically over the past 100 years, it isn’t as rich as more northern European countries and this book helped me to further understand why.

The Catholic Church has a stranglehold on Spain and remains very powerful to this day. Spain exported Catholicism to Latin America during the conquistador era and given their various states of poverty even in modern times, Catholicism is a major culprit. Spain pillaged the natural wealth (gold) of those countries and used it in their fanaticism to build glorious cathedrals all throughout Spain. The author of this book could be in the most destitute village but there always seemed to be a huge cathedral not far away.

The author was in country at the beginning of the civil war and I came to understand why that war came about. Francisco Franco and his nationalist (Fascist) rebels are the traditionalists. They did not want socialism, communism or anything of the sort taking hold. I better understood why the poor farmers were against the old ways. They were stuck in a system that had been in place pretty much since Roman times with most of their profits going the aristocracy. There are ripples of this conflict that continue into modern times which I better understand now due to the origin.

Some examples of this are thus:

My host family brother was really into anarchy and the modern offshoot of ‘punk.” Anarchists were on the socialist (Republican) side of this war.

Spain is more of a socialist country than many (richer) European countries. This provides a good safety net but makes it difficult to accrue a lot of wealth.

The Catholic Church still has a lot of power in Spain but much of the population, even though they still celebrate all the festivals and feast days, are no longer practicing Catholics. I’ve been to mass in Toledo and the pews are bare with the only congregants being mostly old. It is incredible to be in such beautiful cathedrals, reminiscent of the glory of Rome without many attendees. As Toledo is a tourist town I did notice a lot of Latin Americans which the church has relied on to keep it alive as it is dying in the richer countries. I wonder if this decline will continue or if there will be a revival. I’ve started to notice that history is cyclical and moods of nations can change. Just look at the Christian nationalist mood here in the USA. They are often described in a deragatory manner as “fascists.” There are similarities with Spain during their civil war except the leader here is a hapless grifter instead of an army general. However, it feels similar and who knows where it will go.

Politics aside, the massive change in our society from the ’90s to today, greatly influenced by social media is about to get turbocharged by AI. Regular people haven’t handled social media very well and it knocked our political system off the rails. I can’t even imagine what AI is going to do. Too much change bewilders people and it is times like these there is often a movement back to traditions, back to religion. For all its faults, religion is persistent unlike governments which come and go.

Anyway, enough of that, here are my highlights and thoughts.

What with my blistered feet, and the beer in my head, it was as much as I could do to stand up. But the girl took charge she just wrapped her damp arms round me, propped me snugly erect with her bosom, and away we went over the flapping floorboards as though skating on Venetian blinds. This stumbling movement, together with the unexpected nearness of the girl, did nothing to lessen my feeling of drunkenness. Several times I would have fallen, but the girl was like scaffolding, like a straight-jacket of cushioned bones. Helpless, half-crippled, half-anaesthetized by her scent, I scuffled after her, praying for the end. She was tough and beautiful, but I could think of nothing to say to her – except ‘Help, I feel sick and hungry.’ Finally the waltz was over, and the girl led me back to my chair and seated me carefully in it. As she left me she drew her finger down the length of my body as though sealing an envelope.

There is a lot of sexual contact in this book. These are women in 1930 and it surprises me as I grew up in the Catholic faith and I can’t even imagine these amorous women were the mothers of the gray haired, grandmothers that I knew. It makes me realize how much of a Puritan strain there is running through American society. Brothels were apparently everywhere in even Catholic Spain in the ’30s but were due in part to poverty just as much as simply being amorous people. I’m still surprised as my upbringing lead me to believe that the practice didn’t really exist all the way back to Rome. This is obviously untrue and reading so many examples am starting to think it is Christianity that demonizes it whereas it is simply part of human nature.

Looking at Japan, there is a robust “delivery health” and “hostess” culture where, being Buddhist really doesn’t have much of a problem with the practice although Western ideas are creeping in and some restrictions have been put in place.

I was getting used to this pattern of Spanish life, which could have been that of England two centuries earlier. This house, like so many others I’d seen already, held nothing more than was useful for living – no fuss of furniture and unnecessary decoration – being as self-contained as the Ark. Pots, pans, the chairs and tables, the manger and drinking-trough, all were of wood, stone, or potter’s clay, simply shaped and polished like tools. At the end of the day, the doors and windows admitted all the creatures of the family: father, son, daughter, cousin, the donkey, the pig, the hen, even the harvest mouse and the nesting swallow, bedded together at the fall of darkness.

Describing Spain as being England two centuries earlier stuck out to me. Spain could be described even today as being behind the wealthier nations. They are weighed down by religion and past empire. Nations also seem to have a rhythm, reaching peaks and valleys and I just happen to live in one that reached its peak due to winning World War 2. Although economically the USA seems extremely strong, the political discourse points to a rapid decline. The Supreme Court is corrupt, the former President is a grifter, grifting all of the USA, and God forbid we even read about Congress these days.

Spain on the other hand just seems to drowsily bumble along without much progress in-between siestas. I do appreciate the quiet life but when visiting there just doesn’t seem to be much going on aside from a lot of partying at the religious festivals and the brisk hum of tourists.

The daughter, sitting close to the only lamp, buried her fingers in her sewing and listened, raising her huge Arab eyes every moment or so, to meet my glance of dumb conjecture. I was half drunk now; in fact I felt like a bonfire, full of dull smoke and hot congestion. My eyes were hopelessly moored to those small neat breasts, rocking sadly to their rise and fall, till she seemed to be floating before me on waves of breath, naked as a Negress in her tight black dress.

Again a sexual reference that I didn’t think ‘old people’ would have ever done in their lives. I thought that grandmothers I knew growing up would have always been the way they were in old age. I was wrong.

At midday I stopped, having made about three pesetas. The heat by now was driving everyone indoors. So I bought a bottle of wine and a bag of plums and took them down by the river. There, under the mulberry trees, where some thin grass grew, I sat watching the slow green flow of the water. The shade from the trees lay on my hands and legs like pieces of cool wet velvet, and all sounds ceased, save for the piercing stutter of the cicadas which seemed to be nailing the heat to the ground.

Spain is hot during the summer and the practice of siesta was extremely foreign to me. Now I know why and am glad it still persists. I find it a better way to live than the nonstop work we are accustomed to in the USA or Japan.

Then one afternoon, just outside the city walls, I found the little church of the local Virgin, a macabre memorial lying at the foot of the Peña Grajera – the desolate ‘Cliff of Crows’. This granite rock, smothered with croaking birds, was also Segovia’s cliff of blood, one of the many such places of easy death to be found on the edge of Spanish towns. From here, in the past, Segovia had been in the habit of tossing into the gorge its felons, adulterers, and heretics; thus suiting poverty and indolence by saving the price of a bullet or the extra effort of a sword-thrust. A strolling priest took pains to give me these local tit-bits, as well as to explain the significance of the birds on the cliff; pointing out that the slain, in any case, belonged to the world of the damned and that the crows were the ghosts of their godless souls.

I tried to find this place on Google Maps but was unsuccessful. This is one of the historical ‘gems’ I’d love to visit. Unfortunately, it is going to take more research.

Nearby was a waterfall pouring into a bowl of rock, where I stripped and took a short sharp bathe. It was snow-cold, brutal, and revivifying, secluded among the trees, and when I’d finished I sat naked on a mossy stone, slowly drying in the rising sun. I seemed to be in a pocket of northern Europe, full of the cold splendour of Finnish gods. A green haze of pine-dust floated in shafts of sunlight and squirrels swung and chattered above me. Gulping the fine dry air and sniffing the pitch-pine mountain, I was perhaps never so alive and so alone again.

Wonderful imagery here. I find that living in the city with all its noise and distraction damages our mental health. There is something nourishing about getting away to nature and being alone with only birdsong and one’s thoughts. The closest I’ve ever come to this type of description is mountain biking over the Sierras near lake Tahoe. It is so quiet up there that the silence is deafening. It invites introspection and you become aware of yourself and your thoughts much more vividly.

But I think my most lasting impression was still the unhurried dignity and noblesse with which the Spaniard handled his drink. He never gulped, panicked, pleaded with the barman, or let himself be shouted into the street. Drink, for him, was one of the natural privileges of living, rather than the temporary suicide it so often is for others. But then it was lightly taxed here, and there were no licensing laws; and under such conditions one could take one’s time.

It is strange for an American to see how Europeans drink so much. When we drink a lot we usually get drunk, loud and are not ourselves. Continental Europeans on the other hand (French, Spanish, Italian) treat alcohol as part of the culture and with more respect. It is true, that although they drink more, I’ve never seen things anyone completely out of hand such as in British Pubs or the ubiquitous Japanese salaryman passed out drunk on the sidewalk or in a train station.

I began at the Calle Echegaray – a raffish little lane, half Goya, half Edwardian plush, with café-brothels full of painted mirrors, crippled minstrels, and lacquered girls. The narrow ditch-like alley was crowded with gypsies, watchmen, touts, and lechers, and with youths gazing aghast at the girls in the windows, without the money to buy them. Inside, the lucky ones – the paunchy bald clubmen, and spoiled señoritos spending their mothers’ pin-money – had beer and prawns, a girl at each shoulder, a bootblack crouched at their feet, buying the fat court-life for a few pesetas in the midst of a clamour of crones and beggars.

This describes a scene that my Catholic upbringing would describe as “debauchery.” Yet, anywhere I look in historical narratives it seems to be the status quo. It makes me realize how much of a stranglehold religion has on society in the USA. Much of the above remains illegal. But is it inherently ‘bad,’ or is it religious influence which makes it so?

I ended that night, my last in Madrid, with a visit to the Bar Chicote – not the prophylactic night-spot it later became for tourists, but a place of unassumingly local indulgence. More like a private room than a public tavern, it had an atmosphere of exhausted eroticism, and the girls sat quietly in the shadows, subdued but glowing, like daughters waiting to run away from home.

The Bar Chicote still exists! However, now it is called Museo Chicote and definitely looks like it is for tourists. Regardless, I’ve saved it in my places to visit. Link:

I’d been travelling through Spain in a romantic haze, but as I came south the taste grew more bitter. Cádiz at that time was nothing but a rotting hulk on the edge of a disease-ridden tropic sea; its people dismayed, half-mad, consoled only by vicious humour, prisoners rather than citizens.

Again, poverty was stark in 1930s Spain. Now, it seems everyone lives in apartment blocks in those remote villages. So, things are definitely not as bad as in the past, but the improvement is modest when compared to richer countries.

Then one of them beckoned me indoors and offered me her giant daughter, who lay sprawled on a huge brass bed. The sight of the girl and the bed, packed into that tiny room, was like some familiar ‘Alice’ nightmare. I could only smile and stutter, clutching the doorpost and pretending not to understand. ‘Love!’ cried the mother, shaking the bed till it rattled, while the girl bounced slowly like a basking whale. I complimented the woman and made some excuse, saying that it was too early in the day. ‘Light of heaven!’ she cried, ‘what else is there to do?’ Fortunately, it was impossible even to get into the room.

I had a chuckle at this description. Again, another sexual scene which I thought never existed thanks to my Catholic upbringing.

But although he’d made everything, he owned nothing here – forty years working the land for others. Tomorrow might be different, he said, squinting out of the window. Tomorrow, when the ‘potatoes’ came. Rocking quietly in his chair, the old man seemed to be talking to himself, recalling riots that had stirred the past – ploughing up derelict land in times of famine, soldiers coming to destroy the crops, Civil Guards on horses the size of elephants riding down the women and children. Starvation, martyrdom, jail, massacre, the slaughter of animals, homesteads burning … The soldiers, he thought, would be on their side now; and the Civil Guard with the Devil, as usual.

This passage helped me understand who the Republicans (the socialists, communists) were in the civil war. It also gave me more insight into the Guardia Civil, an institution which is still in place in modern times. These guards, are armed and serve far from their hometowns so as not to have any loyalty but to the institution. My host brother in Spain told me they were leftover from the civil war and that was the extent of my understanding about them until this further insight. We don’t have such an institution in the USA as police primarily serve in the same places they were born.

The rebels were steadily building up their forces from Africa, he said; flying in thousands of Moorish troops each day. ‘The Catholic kings were the first to drive the Moors from Spain. Now the Catholic generals are bringing them back. What can we do? There’s nothing to stop them. The war is over, I think.’

Incredible to think that for four hundred years the Catholic Monarchs drove the Moor soldiers back into Africa and during the civil war they invited them back in. Amazing.

So it had come – the sudden end to my year’s adventure, with the long arm reaching from home, the destroyer bobbing in the bay like an aproned nanny, the officer like a patient elder brother. Responsible, tolerant, but slightly bored, he was here to snatch us from alien perils, to honour the birthright inscribed in our passports, and to stop us making fools of ourselves.

One never understands the true value of a passport until your embassy gets you out of a sticky situation in a foreign country. Makes you realize the value of citizenship very clearly and thankful when you’re a citizen of a good and strong country when things go south.

The King of England had sent a ship for the hotel fiddler and his friend, and our departure was a dramatic necessity.

Again, the value of citizenship. It certainly makes you feel important, even if you’re just a “hotel fiddler” to have your country help you out when in trouble in foreign countries.

Part I of the trilogy

Part III of the trilogy

Categorized as Books

By Mateo de Colón

Global Citizen! こんにちは!僕の名前はマットです. Es decir soy Mateo. Aussi, je m'appelle Mathieu. Likes: Languages, Cultures, Computers, History, being Alive! \(^.^)/

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